But given that those dollars are being spent on political campaigns, you could make the argument that it is indeed money for nothing.
When Arizona voters narrowly approved the Clean Elections Initiative in 1998, they created a complex system designed to limit the influence of special interests in the legislative process.
So how is our grand experiment in campaign finance reform working? Well, it's off to a slow start. Of the hundreds of candidates eligible for public financing, only 35 have signed contracts with the Clean Elections Commission to participate. Of those, only 20 have received checks, while another eight have submitted paperwork to qualify. More may still sign on; the deadline for applying for the program is August 24.
Many candidates who might have otherwise participated were scared off because the law was in legal limbo until very recently. After voters approved the initiative, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce sued over the constitutionality of the measure. In June, the state Supreme Court upheld the law, with minor modifications. (The court battles over the Clean Elections Act aren't over; a second challenge in federal court still looms this fall.)
In the meantime, however, the Clean Elections system is a go, although the court decision came so late that most candidates decided to go with the old-fashioned--and evidently dirty--method.
"The problem is that it got so crazy and so complicated and there were so many legal challenges to it, and so many people had to make decisions before knowing if things were going to fall apart, that this may be a really bad test," says UA poli-sci prof Tom Volgy. His interest in campaign finance reform dates back to his days as a city councilman in the 1980s, when he spearheaded a ballot initiative that created a public matching-funds program in Tucson city elections. "I think it's going to be two years from now that it will be really tested."
Here's how the system works:
Candidates for the Arizona Legislature and statewide offices--governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, corporation commissioner and mine inspector--are eligible for public campaign funds ranging from $25,000 to $950,000, depending on the office. The system is voluntary, but candidates who don't participate see the former maximum individual contribution of $320 trimmed by 20 percent, to $256.
Since most of the offices covered under the Clean Elections Act aren't up for grabs for another two years, only candidates for the legislature and the Arizona Corporation Commission are participating this year. Statehouse candidates are eligible for $10,000 for the primary election and an additional $15,000 for the general election; Corporation Commission candidates are eligible for $40,000 for the primary and an additional $60,000 for the general election.
To qualify for public funding, legislative candidates must collect a minimum of 200 $5 contributions from within their district. Corporation Commission candidates must collect 1,500 $5 contributions statewide.
If candidates who aren't participating in the Clean Elections program break the primary or general spending limits, their Clean Elections opponents are eligible for matching funds up to three times the standard spending limit. Non-participating candidates are required to file weekly campaign reports once they come within 70 percent of the spending limit. They must also file daily reports in the two weeks leading up to Election Day.
The program is funded through a surcharge on civil and criminal fines, a $100 annual fee from lobbyists at the state legislature, and from voluntary contributions from individuals, who can elect to make a donation on their state income tax form.
So far, four of the six candidates for the Arizona Corporation Commission--Democrats Barbara Lubin, Herschella Horton and Stephen Ahern and Republican Mark Spitzer--have signed on as Clean Elections candidates. Colleen Connor, executive director of the Citizens Clean Election Commission, says that the other two candidates, Democrat Sandra Kennedy and Republican Bill Mundell, also say they plan to participate.
It's been a harder sell for legislative candidates. Among those running for legislative districts in Pima County, only six candidates have signed contracts to run under the new system.
Three of them are seeking a seat in the House of Representatives in District 13, which stretches across central Tucson and the Catalina Foothills: Democrats Ted Downing, Howard Shore and Colette Barajas. The other three candidates in the District 13 House race, Democrat Gabrielle Giffords and Republicans Jonathan Paton and Carol Somers, are raising money the standard way, from individuals and political action committees.
A UA anthropology professor, Downing was the first candidate to qualify for public dollars. He says he raised enough $5 contributions in just a few weeks by going door to door and invoking U.S. Sen. John McCain's name.
Shore, a clinical psychologist, says he's been gathering contributions at meet-the-candidate parties. Reaching the 200-contribution threshold "isn't an easy goal," he says. "It was a lot harder than I thought."
Shore says he sees "a real advantage" in running under the Clean Elections system. "Once you're elected, you aren't really beholden to any particular group. The whole process is so grass-roots. You do have to do lots of house parties. You do have to go door to door. You can't just buy your way into publicity and into the seat."
Giffords, the only Democrat in the District 13 primary who isn't taking advantage of public dollars, says she would have run as a Clean Elections candidate if there hadn't been a legal cloud over the system. But when the court case hadn't been settled by mid-May, she decided she couldn't wait any longer.
"We were getting to the point where we were just three months away from the primary," Giffords says. "I thought, 'I can't afford to risk my election on waiting.' We had no idea when they were going to rule."
Giffords has found fundraising to be a challenge. "I was not prepared to fundraise," she says. "I was already gathering my $5 contributions and that was the way I was planning on running. But it certainly throws you into a whole different world. It really shifts your campaign."
As of May 31, Giffords had raised $3,337. She declined to say how much she had raised in the last two months.
Paton, one of two Republicans in the District 13 race, is staunchly opposed to the Clean Elections system.
"I believe that if you're going to say you're for increased funding for education, and you're going to be for increased spending for these different items, it's kind of hypocritical to take state money and use it for your own yard signs and junk mail," he says.
While he concedes that the money won't come from the general fund this year, "It will in the future, after everyone sees what a great deal it is," he predicts. "I just think it's morally wrong, when it comes down to it."
Paton's political experience--he served as an intern in both the state legislative and executive branches in 1994 and ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in District 9 in 1998--has given him an extensive base for fundraising. By May 31, he'd raised $19,922, with $16,223 from individual contributors. Another $3,363 came from political action committees, including $400 from the Arizona Dental Political Action Committee, $150 from the Arizona Cattlemen's Association and $256 from the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.
Paton, who says he's now raised roughly $30,000, rejects the notion that the contributions have put him in anyone's pocket. "I didn't have to whore myself out to anyone," Paton says. "I mean, $256 a person--I had to go to people's offices, convince them I was a credible candidate, and convince them to support me. I know for a fact that I've had at least 180 contributions. And I think that's kind of a qualifying mark, that you convince people in the community to back you."